Deaf culture

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This article describes aspects of Deaf cultures. See also deafness and Models of deafness. For a discussion of the medical condition, see hearing impairment.

Deaf community and Deaf culture are two phrases used to refer to cultures comprised of people who are culturally Deaf as opposed to those who are deaf from the medical/audiological/pathological perspective. When used in the cultural sense, the word deaf is very often capitalized in writing, and referred to as "big D Deaf".

Big D Deaf communities do not automatically include all those who are clinically or legally deaf, nor do they exclude every hearing person. According to Baker and Padden, a person is Deaf if he or she "identifies him/herself as a member of the Deaf community, and other members accept that person as a part of the community."[1] Deaf culture may include those who attended deaf schools, children of deaf parents, and some sign language interpreters.

The primary languages of those who identify themselves as Deaf are signed. Deaf communities also often possess social and cultural norms that are distinct from those of surrounding hearing communities.


The use of the cultural label of being Deaf can be a declaration of personal identity rather than an indicator of hearing ability. Indeed, many people who self-identify as Deaf from a cultural perspective may have 'better' hearing than those who don't. See disability for a discussion of the social model of disability as opposed to the medical model of impairment.

Deaf culture commonly perceives the term hearing impaired as insulting or misleading. The primary reason is that Deaf people feel the word "impaired" carries too much negativity. Some Deaf people also do not feel the terms "hard-of-hearing" and "Deaf" are synonymous or should be put in the same category.

Deaf communities provide a sense of belonging for deaf people, who might otherwise feel excluded from the dominant hearing culture. As deafness is a relatively rare condition, relationships within a Deaf community can extend over great distances to bring people together. Deaf culture emphasizes community and interdependency but the main characteristic of Deaf culture is the use of signed languages. Signed languages are distinct from local spoken and written languages. Although some spoken words may have a corresponding sign, the usage, inflections, and grammar (and even the rate of communication) of signed languages can differ greatly from speech.

Distinction between clinical deafness and Deaf culture

The word 'deaf' can be used both to refer to individuals who are clinically deaf and individuals who are members of a cultural group consisting mostly of people who are clinically deaf. The label of the cultural group is conventionally distinguished in writing by using an upper case D. The distinction between 'deaf' and 'Deaf' individuals is not simply a matter of perspective since there are deaf people who do not consider themselves part of Deaf culture and hearing people who do, but in practice the groups have a very similar membership.

Acceptance within Deaf culture can depend on the age at which a person became deaf, attendance at a residential school or college for the deaf, and especially the ability to sign. While children of deaf adults and interpreters may be considered "honorary Deaf", hearing people are not generally accepted as members of the Deaf community. In addition, the use of cochlear implants has long been seen as "selling out" like becoming an "Uncle Tom".[citation needed]

Common beliefs and values in Deaf culture

Deaf students inside the classroom of a special school for the hard of hearing in Baghdad, Iraq (April 2004).

The affinity that Deaf people have for one another does not derive from the same source as cultural groups that are based around ethnicity since Deaf people do not necessarily share common ancestry or a common language. They don't share common ancestry since the majority of Deaf people come from hearing families [2] and Deaf people from around the world are as divided by language barriers as hearing people. In the United Kingdom the dominant sign language is British Sign Language, in the United States, it is American Sign Language, in Australia, it is Auslan and so on. Each of these languages has a distinct grammar and vocabulary that makes them mutually unintelligible in exactly the same way that spoken languages such as English and Chinese are mutually unintelligible.

In many respects it may be more accurate to speak of many distinct Deaf cultures that are specific to particular geographic regions and the specific sign languages that are used in them. There is however a general affinity between Deaf peoples from around the world that is associated with the common physical and cultural obstacles that they face. International events that reinforce this identity include the Deaflympics which has been staged every four years since 1924, though it is not sufficient for athletes to self-identify as members of Deaf culture to participate in this event since qualification is based on clinical deafness.

A belief commonly shared by Deaf people from around the world is that deafness should not be regarded as an impairment or disability. Deaf people are disadvantaged relative to hearing people, but much of this can be attributed to the fact that societies are structured almost exclusively around the concerns of the hearing. However, deaf people are also at a disadvantage simply by virtue of having a channel of information about their environment closed off to them and this is irrespective of how they are treated by the dominant hearing culture.

Mainstream recognition of Deaf culture

For much of history, deaf people were expected to adapt to hearing culture as best they were able or to be hidden or invisible. Recently, especially in the United States and the Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland), the existence of a Deaf culture has been increasingly recognized. (Charlotte Baker, 1980)

Deaf President Now: The 1988 student strike at Gallaudet University, in Washington, D.C., was a watershed moment in the awareness of Deaf culture by the dominant American hearing culture. Deaf President Now student organizers and allies forced the university, which, after all, served an all-deaf and hard of hearing population, to select its first deaf president. Perhaps more importantly, the movement helped frame the struggle of deaf people within the context of a civil rights movement. Having a leader who can fully understand and relate to this principle was considered vital to the Deaf population.

Cultural Centres: The Dorothy Miles Cultural Centre, based in Guildford, England, exists to bridge the gap between deaf and hearing people through social, cultural and educational activities. The Centre also offers courses in British Sign Language (BSL) which are accredited by the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People. DMCC runs drama workshops involving professional actors and organises sporting events, including an annual cricket match. There is also widespread availability of BSL courses from other providers across the UK. Nearly all terrestrial television is closed captioned.

The Deaf Culture Centre opened in 2006 in central Toronto. A project of the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf, it features a museum, art gallery, and gift shop. It also houses archives and provides facilities for research. Visitors can sample state-of-the-art visually rich technology highlighting Deaf historical artifacts and literature. There is also an ASL/LSQ interactive website/television and multimedia production studio.


  1. Baker, C. (1978). American Sign Language: A look at its Story Structure and Community. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  2. Miller, R.H. (2005), Deaf Hearing Boy: A Memoir, bookclub@ket

Further reading

  • Barnard, Henry (1852), "Tribute to Gallaudet--A Discourse in Commemoration of the Life, Character and Services, of the Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet, LL.D.--Delivered Before the Citizens of Hartford, Jan. 7th, 1852. With an Appendix, Containing History of Deaf-Mute Instruction and Institutions, and other Documents." (Download book:
  • Gascón Ricao, A. y J.G. Storch de Gracia y Asensio (2004) Historia de la educación de los sordos en España y su influencia en Europa y América. Madrid : Editorial universitaria Ramón Areces, Colección "Por más señas".
  • Herrera, V. Habilidad lingüística y fracaso lector en los estudiantes sordos.[1]
  • Kyle, J. & Woll, B. (1985). Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ladd, P. (2003). Understanding Deaf Culture. In Search of Deafhood. Toronto: Multilingual Matters.
  • Lane, Harlan (1993). The Mask of Benevolence. New York: Random House.
  • Lane, Harlan, Hoffmeister, Robert, & Bahan, Ben (1996). A Journey into the Deaf-World. San Diego, CA: Dawn Sign Press.
  • Luczak, Raymond (1993). Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader, ISBN 1-55583-204-0.
  • Moore, Matthew S. & Levitan, Linda (2003). For Hearing People Only, Answers to Some of the Most Commonly Asked Questions About the Deaf Community, its Culture, and the "Deaf Reality", Rochester, New York: Deaf Life Press, ISBN 0-9634016-3-7.
  • Padden, Carol A. (1980). The deaf community and the culture of Deaf people. In: C. Baker & R. Battison (eds.) Sign Language and the Deaf Community. Silver Spring(EEUU): National Association of the Deaf.
  • Padden, Carol A. (1996). From the cultural to the bicultural: the modern Deaf community. in Parasnis I, ed. "Cultural and Language Diversity and the Deaf Experience." Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press
  • Padden, Carol A. & Humphries, Tom L. (1988). Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Padden, Carol A. & Humphries, Tom L. (2005). Inside Deaf Culture, ISBN 0-674-01506-1.
  • Pizzo, Rose (2001). "Growing Up Deaf: Issues of Communication in a Hearing World", ISBN 1-4010-2887-X
  • Sacks, Oliver W. (1989). Seeing Voices; A Journey Into The World Of The Deaf, ISBN 0-520-06083-0.
  • Storch de Gracia y Asensio, J.G. (coord.)(2005), Estatuto jurídico de las lenguas de señas en el Derecho español (Aproximaciones), Madrid, Editorial universitaria Ramón Areces, Colección "Por más Señas, La Llave"
  • Storch de Gracia y Asensio, J.G. (2005), "Las teorías de Harlan Lane sobre la identidad sorda. Oscuras remembranzas del nazismo en estado puro", en el sitio web Voces en el Silencio.
  • Storch de Gracia y Asensio, J.G. (2006), "Derecho a la información y discapacidad (Una reflexión aplicada a los lenguajes de los sordos)", en Revista General de Información y Documentación [Madrid-España], vol. 16, núm. 1, pp. 75-103 (accessible at Centro Hervás y Panduro).
  • Van Cleve, John Vickrey & Crouch, Barry A. (1989). A Place of Their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America, ISBN 0-930323-49-1.

See also

External links

de:Gehörlosenkultur nl:Dovencultuur